Jun. 27—MANKATO — Last summer, Nolan Pender was a late addition to the Mankato MoonDogs’ roster.
He was pitching for a local team in Louisville, Kentucky, when he got the call. But as an 18-year-old facing an 11-hour drive, he was nervous about pitching for the MoonDogs and staying with the Noren family.
“It was very stressful,” he said. “But when I got to town, the Noren family was so welcoming. It was such a great environment, and everything felt like I was supposed to be there. It felt like home.”
There are 25 families, involving 97 family members, that are hosting players for Mankato’s Northwoods League baseball team this summer. There are many repeat hosts, but there are some new families that have decided to host players for a couple of months.
The Norens have hosted ballplayers for 20 years, covering 25 players, with four players that have stayed more than one summer.
“It’s been a great experience,” Gary Noren said. “We’ve met a lot of parents, and the kids have been wonderful. We stay in contact with more than half of them. We’ve been invited to weddings and graduations. When we plan vacations, we usually try to find a game with one of the players. … I don’t think it could have gone any better.”
The Norens started hosting ballplayers when their children, Emma and Travis, were still in preschool. The family goes to as many games as possible; Emma and Travis have taken jobs with the MoonDogs over the years.
“It’s amazing how these players become part of the family,” Jean said.
This summer, when Pender arrived, Jean made some hot dogs and invited the neighborhood over to meet Pender, who was here last summer but didn’t get to meet many people because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I thought it was a nice way to celebrate 20 years,” she said.
Pender said he was excited to hear about the gathering, especially interacting with the neighborhood kids.
“I thought it was awesome,” Pender said. “It was great to meet people, and the kids got so excited when they found out I was playing for the MoonDogs. It was a great way to start the summer.”
Angie Elliott said she wasn’t aware of the host family opportunities with the MoonDogs, but some friends recommended it before this summer.
The Elliotts are hosting Kole Kaler, who lives in Arizona and attends the University of Hawaii, and Tim Shimashita, who lives in San Diego, California, and attends San Jose State University.
Elliott said her 9-year-old son Spencer was especially excited to have baseball players stay with them.
“I know this will leave a lasting impression on him,” Angie Elliott said. “The players are a good influence. He’s loving this.”
Elliott said it’s been easy hosting the players, who spend most of the day at workouts and games or on the road. She makes sure the players have everything they need, including rides when necessary.
“The door is open, food is available,” Angie Elliott said. “One player flew in so we made sure he had all the essentials. The other drove here so they share a ride to the ballpark. We always have eggs and bread on hand.”
It’s only been a month, but the Elliotts are enjoying their time as a host family.
“It’s the coolest thing,” she said. “It’s super fun, and the guys are great and respectful.”
The process of becoming a host family has been a bit more tricky for Tricia Stenberg, who has sons that are 8, 9 and 11 and crazy about baseball.
The Stenbergs were set to host a pitcher, so they reached out and started to communicate with him and his family. But in the final college game of the season, that pitcher took a line drive in the face that required surgery and cancelled his summer baseball plans.
“We had already become kind of attached,” Tricia Stenberg said. “It’s emotional for the kids. They’re so excited when they think they’re getting an older brother, and they’re disappointed when things change. It’s been interesting.”
Two other players were assigned to the Stenbergs, but those players decided not to come to Mankato and join the MoonDogs.
Finally, a player showed up in Mankato, assigned to stay with the Stenbergs, but that player eventually chose to stay with a relative.
“(MoonDogs officials) kept telling me that it’s typical that you don’t get the first player you’re assigned,” Tricia Stenberg said. “Finally, they said, ‘this isn’t typical.’
Now, the Stenbergs have been promised a player in the first week of July for the second half of the Northwoods League season.
“It doesn’t seem real that a player is finally coming in a week,” she said. “Our kids love baseball and having a mentor. I know it’s going to be a good experience, once it finally happens.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.